Thursday, January 28, 2010

UC@GMC - Exchange Unified Messaging

If Enterprise Voice is the most efficient way to achieve savings while increase productivity, Exchange Unified Messaging is the most beautiful part in the entire Unified Communications concept.

Georgia Military College currently employs Exchange 2007 as enterprise email solution. It have been said enough already of the advantages of the Exchange server – no need to repeat it here. There is, however, a role called Unified Messaging, which contributed a great deal to our Enterprise Voice solution. Remember the $3.00 per Voice Mail box with our former provider? Multiply this by the number of phone lines/users and a here where a good chunk of MRC goes in some cases.

With Exchange Unified messaging, a voice mail is no longer the simple registration if the fact someone called, said something and left a call back number. Now we have a visual representation of the call arriving via email. We can play it on our computer, listen it over a phone and once we upgrade to Exchange 2010, read it. That’s right; Exchange will email us a transcript of the voice mail. How about that!

Now, I don’t know about you, but I enjoy every bit of the ultimate visualization of the event. I can click to play the message on my PC speakers, to reply with email, or click to start IM session or… click to initiate a phone call. The common denominator here: “click”. No time wasted.

The other great feature of Unified Messaging role is Auto Attendant - voice recognition feature which can do wanders for your work flow in any area. It is still a running joke around the college what I said during the presentation of the Unified Communication concept – “English is my fourth language and if this system understands me – it is a darn good system!”

Here is one example:

EDU folks knows already how important is the communication between faculty and students in meaning of reachability. In typical scenario, the kid would know the name of the Faculties but not their direct numbers. They would call any number associated with GMC (typically the last number from which someone from GMC called) and the run around begins… frustrating for both sides. We Provisioned Auto Attendant to be a single point of reach for all faculty – one number is distributed in the beginning of the quarter to all students. The AA is “narrowed” to a list with Faculties only, and the caller can simply speak the name and be connected.

Another example is how we handled the K12 part of the school. The teachers do not have office, but rather the classroom is an “office” itself. During the planning phase we determined that having a phone in a classroom is not a good idea since it will disturb the learning process. However, while we were evaluating the current procedures, this is what we discovered:

A parent would call the school secretary and leave a message for a teacher, who in return would check several times throughout the day “Is there something for me?” and then handle it. Another, although insignificant for someone part, would be the missing indirect interaction with the caller, meaning of intonation and sometime anger etc. In our case, we decided to provision out K12 teachers with mailbox without actually participating actively in the call flow i.e. a phone or DID assignment. Now the school secretary forwards those calls immediately to the teacher’s voicemail, which in turn is delivered via email immediately to the user.

The possibilities are endless and UM role could handle wide variety of scenarios – it require good knowledge of the capabilities (and limitations) of it and patience. Patience to listen what your users need, not what “you think they need”.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

UC@GMC - The endpoints

Ah, the touchy subject… Let me tell you what I think.

Microsoft have the leverage to learn from the best when comes to VoIP. OCS EV proves every day to be a valuable alternative to the Big Boys (and big money) solutions. I know at least one place where Nortel slashed their yearly maintenance fees 60% in desperate attempt to “distract” the College from moving to Microsoft UM and… yet this same college uses Exchange as email solution, OCS as IM solution, SharePoint as collaboration solution and so on. What would be the logical choice for VoIP in this case?

OCS on its way to mature as complete solution and yet Microsoft repeated one more time a common in the past mistake – looked in the mirror and said “yeah, we are the biggest and we know better” when comes to the endpoints. It is so typical in the IT world when one programmer write piece of code and another programmer goes like “Man, this is beautiful!” while for the rest of the world this still looks like Sumerian. I have a feeling the hardware part of OCS never left the corporate presentations until hit the market. You see, EDU sector is different. Say, in Geico, you can give the employee a banana, tell him - “This is how you make a phone call from now on” and that’s it. In EDU, we will form a committee and two focus groups to discuss “Is this a phone and can we use it in our college?”

There are three main objectives during the planning phase:  
  • To reduce or offset completely the stress when pushing major changes in the work environment
  • To complete the deployment with the lowest TCO thus achieving fastest ROI
  • To achieve maximum savings of MRC
Back in the days, when I told my boss that we need to place a $500 phone on the desk of an entry clerk that makes less than a $20,000 per year, he sent me to take a drug test and began listen only when I introduced endpoint for less than $80. Besides, Snom 300 series looks like a phone, feels like a phone and works like a phone.
We did some ‘physiological” tests. Catalina devices were introduced to different categories in our college. Needless to say, IT folks absolutely love it; the CIS faculties were OK with it and the rest – “Take this thing away from my desk, now!” When Snom 300 was introduced, all we got is “Ah, I have new phone.” And of course, with Tanjay we got “Can I keep it” and the answer is “No! It is too expensive and you will never use even 10% of the features.”
All our executives have Tanjay not because it looks cool but because it introduces features unseen before. It is simply the ultimate collaboration tool one could have on its desk. Let say the CFO calls branch office Director to discuss a budget request from the Dean. At some point the Director will say – “You know, I see the Dean is available, let’s escalate this call to a conference…” and all this from a phone device. Beautiful!
Down on the floor, all we have is “Georgia Military College, Business Office. How may I help you?”

Friday, January 8, 2010

StartCom certificate- why it works

I decided to try StartCom UCC certificate for my test OCS 2007 R2 Edge server. For my big surprise - it works!!! Just found why: One tricky part, though – your federation partner must have this update:

Happy Federation

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

UC@GMC - Connecting to PSTN

Next to come is the connection of your internal OCS environment to the world.

I am puzzled every time when see folks working hard to integrate existing VoIP platforms with OCS. For me this does not make sense – adding one complex system on top of another, thus doubling the chance of disruption the normal business operations big time if (or when) something goes wrong. Indeed, one cannot “pull the plug” of the old system at once since migration to new hardware (endpoints that is) for a big number of users can’t happen overnight, and yet… I see how some colleagues want to have 100% working test environment for demonstration and justification purposes (indeed full blown UC is a powerful convincing tool), but planning to run it in production is insane. Not that it will not work; just the overhead is too much…

Actually, if you have an existing hosted PBX (analog or digital incl. VoIP), by carefully planning the migration steps, you can move your users to Microsoft UC platform working your way from department to building to campus to DLC. As I mentioned before, GMC had PBX (sort of), hosted on our provider premise. You might find interesting the fact that due to the stubbornness of our provider, (refused to release the phone numbers for porting), we changed ALL phone numbers throughout the State of Georgia. You see, reducing the MRC up to 80% could be a very effective argument of otherwise No-No in the EDU sector.

Those familiar with OCS know already that the platform is very tight in meaning of what can and cannot connect to it. Plus, Microsoft adds many proprietary SIP messages (needed for different parts of UC) and so, we have native conflict(s) when comes to SIP protocol - not that MS does not comply, sometimes follows the RFC “too strict” I might say. Long story short, there is role called Mediation Server – a role necessary to make the connection between “standard” SIP (device, provider etc.) and the internal OCS roles. Careful examination if the traffic in and out of the “external” interface facing the gateway shows just a standard SIP and nothing else. This is how I got the idea about SIP Trunking with VoIP provider, BTW…

There are not so many options when comes to connecting OCS to PSTN. We can use Gateway or Trunk (although some use the term “trunk” to describe the physical connection between Mediation and Gateway). In any case, some sort of phone service – analog (POTS), BRI (ISDN), T1 (PRI), E1 (Euro PRI) and so on, must terminate on your premise to a gateway (analog or digital) and this gateway will convert it to SIP and RTP thus making it “understandable” for Mediation and further more OCS. Since we did not have any PBX or other device, GMC had the leverage to test and consider any scenario. So, I was playing with Audiocodes analog gateway and at some point I was like “Wait a second – this traffic looks a lot like my VoIP phone’s traffic at home”! Quick call to CallCentric (VoIP provider for my test account), revealed an ugly truth - that they do not support Sip over TCP. Took me about a week to find a US based provider who agreed to test SIP over TCP trunk with GMC –

Here I need to say something – I considered Microsoft certified partner first (no names) and even ran quick interop test which worked beautifully. One problem though – even they offered “local” DID’s i.e. Milledgeville numbering scheme, the billing Local Calling Area was Atlanta and so, when someone from Milledgeville calls (478) 387-xxxx (local number), the caller would be billed LONG DISTANCE charges because the termination of the trunk is actually Atlanta. Bad idea! The local phone companies fall from the band wagon right away - $1,300 for a single T1 PRI (23 voice channels) or $56.52. What were they thinking!!!

Back to Broadvox… a concurrent call (single trunk) cost ~ $13 - $15 (depends of the type of the contract), and so our Milledgeville campus trunk (40 concurrent calls) cost us now… a little over $500. Can’t beat this. Basically, we accept SIP and RTP traffic from set of IP addresses (a distributed failover) and send traffic to FQDN (load balancer). Of course, one might say “SIP trunk is a single point of failure” and this is correct. However, we presented the Pros and Cons of every option to the Boss and the ultimate decision was to achieve maximum savings while recognize the risks.